Brno on the Backroads

njuta n. (Swedish) Much more than joy; To have a deep appreciation of something; To have a profound experience of appreciation and gratitude.

My next stop in the Czech Republic was Brno, a bit of a deviation from my original plans.  While I was meant to head off to Cesky Krumlov, an extremely touristy but beautiful little Czech city, I had instead received an offer to stay with someone in Brno for a few days.  A little over a month ago, my mother went to a barbeque with some people from her job, and there she met one of her colleague’s wives, Radka.  Originally from the Czech Republic, Radka returns there to spend a couple months every summer, and hearing my mom talk about my travels, instantly sent me an invitation through my mom to stay with her when I passed through.  In all honestly, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the idea at first.  While I was definitely open to staying with people in order to more fully experience the true culture of a country and save a bit of accommodation costs, it would definitely screw up my plans.  As spontaneous as I am, I am also a person who enjoys a plan.  I live my life by schedules with pockets jammed with pieces of paper containing lists for just about everything you could imagine.  My summer schedule was already solidified, my plans listed out and booked.  It was perfect, and I was hesitant to change that.  Getting stuck in the rut of a schedule is one of the downsides of both the stubborn and obsessive-compulsive parts of my personality. 

But travel has been helping me work on that.  It has taught me that sometimes things don’t go according to plan and you have to adapt.  No matter how meticulously detailed your schedule is, there are unforeseeable things that will come up that will change those plans no matter what you do.  It’s all part of it.  So why not seize control of that and actively choose to change the plan?  Mid-way through my first month, about a week before actually going to the Czech republic, I finally decided to go for it and temporarily toss my schedule out the window.  There’s a little known film called The Art of Travel that states, ‘The art of travel is to deviate from one’s plans.”  When you think about it, it’s true beyond the obvious immediate sense.  And since I had already deviated from the overall societal expectation about the course that my life was “supposed to take”, I figured I might as well try out deviation on a bit of a lesser and more literal scale.

It was easier said than done.  Due to the fact that I pre-book everything, months in advance, something not a lot of travelers do, it was actually quite a pain.  First I needed to trim off my days in Prague, look into changing the date of my stay in Cesky Krumlov, which I ended up not being able to do because the hostel was full if I moved the reservation ahead one day, canceling bus tickets, and rebooking them for different dates (thankfully Student Agency bus company makes that super easy and free to do).  Finally, only one day before actually having to go to Brno, I finished working out these details.

You may be wondering why, if it’s such a pain, that I plan everything?  Well, it’s complicated.  There are a lot of benefits to the way I do it just as there are benefits such as freedom to deviate from one’s path by not planning ahead.  For example, I often get hostels at cheaper prices and I never get into a city only to find all accommodation booked up and find myself without a place to sleep.  Because everything is pre-booked and much of it paid for, my spending is also a bit more disbursed and I go into the trip with an idea of what I’ll actually be spending on it.  I also get the comfort of knowing I don’t have to take time out of my travel days to plan my next stay.  It’s all been done.  For the most part, this method has worked well for me, but there are some instances where I wish for more freedom, but that pointless “the grass is always greener” mentality is just as prevalent for one side as the other.  I’ve met people who don’t plan who have run into trouble without places to stay.  It all goes back to that common theme of “hike your own hike”.  There are tons of different methods one can use when traveling and no one is better than the other.  Some are simply suitable to different people and none of them are perfect 100% of the time.

So I arrived in Brno not really sure what to expect or really even who to look for at the bus stop.  Thankfully, the minute I descended from the steps of the bus, a woman came over to me and asked, “Amber?”  “Yeah!  You must be Radka! It’s nice to finally meet you.”  We collected my pack from the belly of the bus, loaded it into her car, and drove off to her house, a real house, with peace, quiet, space, and private bathrooms.  Between the hostels and my tiny prison cell of a room at Oxford (which I still say with a great degree of fondness), I had almost forgotten what it meant to be in a normal house.  The best part of the house was Darka, a seven-year-old golden retriever Radka was looking after for one of her friends.  Even though Darka was a bit ill at the time and grudgingly took (or was forced to take more accurately) medicine a couple times a day, she was still a sweetheart who would always greet you at the door with a wagging tail and a goofy grin, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.  In Czech, “dar” is the word for gift and “ka” is simply a female suffix so Darka’s name essentially meant “gift” and she was definitely that.

After settling into an empty room on the top floor of the three-story house, I gathered up my laundry and we set off for one of Radka’s friend’s house where she could do laundry since she herself was without a washing machine at the moment.  This was the first time I had actually gotten to do laundry thus far on these travels, outside the occasional hand washing of underwear in the sink. And it had come just in time as well, as I was just about entirely out of clean clothes, clean being redefined in a traveler’s sense as “not smelly enough to repulse someone sitting next to you on public transport”.   While waiting for the wash cycle to finish, Radka and I headed next door where some friends of hers were having a birthday party for their young son.  While I felt a bit awkward and intrusive, a state I’m rather used to, they did their best to make me feel welcome and included.  Form there, we returned home with the wash to go take Darka on a walk through the nearby park.  Each summer when Radka gets her, Darka is horribly overweight and so Radka takes it upon herself to put Darka on a diet and walk her two times a day.  She was already looking much slimmer by the time I met her.  We returned home, ate a late dinner, and went to bed, feeling truly satisfied, safe, and content for the first time in a long time,

With me only being in Brno for a few days and Radka having a ton of things to show me, we wanted to make the most of our time.  After a quick, early breakfast of some good old fashioned cereal (which you would not believe how much I actually miss eating while traveling) we set off with a considerably long to-do list for the day.  Out first stop was one of a hundreds of karst caves surrounding the area of Brno.  While its main karst, in which you could actually ride a boat through the inner waterway at one point, was entirely booked up for the time I was there, the other caves were still open.  After very little help from me in the decision making process, we decided to visit the Jeskyne Balcarka.  I should mention that I love caves.  Ever since my grandpa took me to the Lewis and Clark Caverns when I was a kid, I have always held a bit of a fascination with them.  I can remember that after that first tour I took there, telling him how I wanted to spend the summer living out there in the harsh Montana scrub and working as a tour guide so I could visit the caves every day.  Even now, it doesn’t seem like such a bad summer job.

Because of this love of caves, I couldn’t have cared less when our tour guide started chattering away in Czech, though it did initially surprise me.  For some reason, I had just expected English even though this wasn’t exactly your typical tourist destination but rather a destination for Czech families themselves.  I hated that I had unconsciously held that expectation of English.  How self-centered is that?  Here I was in a foreign country, a guest in their culture, and some small part of me still held that English expectation.  I think it has to do with the fact that much of Europe caters to the tourist industry and as English has become the official language of the world, it’s sadly stamping out traditional culture. In that moment I realized that as much as I have loved Europe over my travels, it was sill incredibly westernized and a part of me craved to be a in place untouched by western culture and civilization. One day.

As I fell into the tour, however, I found the fact that I couldn’t understand the guide to be a matter of little importance.  Anything she said that was important or any named cave formations she would point out, Radka simply translated for me once she stopped talking.  I actually found it fascinating to hear the tour in Czech.  Even though I couldn’t understand a word, it felt genuine to me, like I had finally found my way off the beaten tourist path.  For just over an hour, we climbed 333 stairs and toured through the expansive caverns of limestone stalagmites and stalactites, warmly glowing under the artificial lighting system, which is ironic considering the caves stay a constant cool temperature of 8°C year round.  As always in caves, my attention was drawn by the rooms and caverns located through narrow openings not explored by the path, but in between bits of the cave that had collapsed and the giant vertical shafts located through it, I figured they might have the designated path for a reason.  In the final room of the cave, the tour wrapped up with a cheesy little animation of Stone Age people whom were thought to live in that cave in history.  But as there was no language to be spoken in the short film, I could at least understand it.

We emerged from the blissfully cool cave back into the sweltering heat.  Coming from Montana where we get over 100°F maybe a handful of times each summer, this constant near 40°C weather was brutal, and in combination with the lower altitude and higher humidity, the heat felt even worse.  But as we drove across the Czech countryside, through quaint towns surrounding the Brno area, hot wind streaming through the open windows of the car, I was reminded of the good things brought by the heat.  Out next stop was a little village not far away where we could find Rudicke Propadani, the largest sagging in the Morovian Karst and the second largest cave system in the Czech Republic.  There, nestled at the base of a large rock cliff upon which stood the remains of an old castle, we actually found an wide gaping mouth of a cave open for free exploration.  Free, unguided exploration of a cave?  Sign me up!  Unfortunately, we had not thought to bring any flashlights or headlamps and you couldn’t see two inches in front of you once you stepped about ten meters into the cave.  Now, I am nothing if not resourceful and I was determined to see this cave.  Taking out my camera, I used the blinding flash on it to slowly and painstakingly inch my way down into the cave.  Radka stayed in the half-light of the entrance and I can’t say I blame her.  The stones along the gentle descent were incredibly slick and though there wasn’t much to actually trip over, I almost fell down several times.  After using the flash to make me way down to a more level area, I could see the cave stretching on further, a black abyss narrowing in front of me, but realistically I knew the flash alone was simply not going to cut it.  I was going to end up getting hurt and thus I had to abandon my great cave exploration.  Lessons learned? I really need to start packing a flashlight just in case.

Once we exited the cave, we hiked up over the Cliffside to view the ruins of the castle before returning to the car and making our way to the next stop on our list, a small little village Rudice, where grabbed a quick snack of Misa, which is kind of like a cottage cheese based ice cream bar (it’s a lot better than it sounds) and made our way into a small wooded area just on the village borders where I did what I do best: climb things.  After all, if anything looks slightly high or dangerous, I am overcome with an immediate impulse to conquer it.  And unlike many people, Radka simply sat back and let me do my thing, without trying to talk me out of it or worrying too much that I was going to fall.  She possessed a similar attitude as me to the world, which I believe can be summed up in something she said the next day on a cycle ride we took: “The sign says not to go there but I don’t care.”  Radka was my kind of adventure buddy.

From there we looped up through the village itself toward an old windmill and a small modern little church.  Yet my favorite part of the town, and honestly even the drives through the many villages we had seen that day, was just observing the small quaint lives of these places.  It seemed like every single house we passed had a garden, many of them adorned with little tea cups and pots hung on the fence posts and railings.  Apparently that is simply Czech decorative tradition.  They don’t really serve much purpose but I found it eccentric and charming nonetheless.  Post it on Pinterest and it would be the next new fad right behind mason jars.  But I loved that everyone seemed to be growing their own vegetables because it’s not something you see that often in the States.  Growing up in Montana, obviously, with the amount of land we have, gardens are quite common but they’re also a lot of work and thus many people choose simply not to put in the work to maintain them.  At home, we grow herbs, peas, and tomatoes every summer and to me, nothing is better or more satisfying though than eating things you’ve grown yourself.  I admired this place where everyone was doing just that.   

There, the neighbors cared about each other.  Radka told me stories of an old neighborhood she lived in with neighbors who would question everyone who ever came to her door.  “What do you want?  They’re not home.  Go away, they’re not there.”  Montana is a bit like that in places, the whole small town protect your own attitude, but even still not quite to that degree.  Such were the stories Radka would tell me and I found myself able to listen to her for hours.  I loved hearing about her life growing up in the Czech Republic and I loved seeing the passion in her eyes when she did so.  Radka talked about Brno as I talk about Montana.  For her, living in Montana now would never be home and it was very strange to me to hear someone talk about this place I love so much from a different perspective.  I guess to some extent we all learn to love the familiar.  Even though I love new experiences and unfamiliar places, a large part of my heart will always stay in Montana.  It was nice being able to talk about home though with someone who actually knew what it was like there, who I could actually mention names of small towns like Kila and Marion to and they wouldn’t look at me like I was speaking a foreign language.  So often, when I talk about Montana, I get looks of confusion or the most ridiculous questions.  “So, are there cities in Montana or is it all just country?” “Do you guys are cars or do you drive horses and buggies?”  “Montana, that’s by Indiana right?” (said to my by an American person to make matters worse- seriously, guys, geography is important).  But the most frequent one I get is: “So like Hannah Montana, right?” at which point I cringe and say, “Yeah, exactly like that.”  Unfortunately, I’m not sure whether the sarcasm registers in some countries over here.  Can I just say something?  Hannah Montana was from Tennessee.  She literally had nothing to do with Montana. Bloody writers should have picked a better name.  Anyway.  So it was nice being able to talk about Montana without have to explain it like some mythical place.

Hearing about her youth growing up under a communist system was especially interesting.  Growing up in America where so much as saying the word “communism” is basically an act of treason or an instant red flag on your CIA profile, I couldn’t even imagine living under such a system.  It was very eye opening.  In America, we are taught to view systems like communism from a very specific, biased perspective and thus we’ve never really been taught what living under such a system was like.  It’s horribly one sided.  Radka shattered the dark veil cast over it and explained that though there were aspects of it she would never want back, there were also some good things to it.  Not much different than democracy then by all accounts, but maybe I shouldn’t write that on here.  They might not let me back in the States if the NSA happens to read my blog. Thank you, Patriot Act (oh sorry, I mean U.S.A. “Freedom” Act). 

Radka had endless interesting stories to tell, from the crazy hiking trips she would take as a child to tales of her friends, the most amazing of which was a woman named Alenka (I apologize if I haven’t spelled that correctly), who at 50+ years old runs 100km marathons, rock climbs, and goes on expeditions through cannibalistic countries.  Better yet, she has literally left behind boyfriends or dumped them if she felt like they were too weak.  I would have loved to have gotten the chance to speak to her about her adventures, but Radka’s explanation of her was a close second.  Meeting other people and hearing stories about them makes you realize how many amazing individuals there are in the world.  I can only hope that one day, people will be telling stories like that about me.

It was midafternoon by the time we finished with our mini-road trip and we returned home for lunch.  Another thing I loved about my stay with Radka was the food.  There are two ways to my heart: dogs and food and thus far, Brno had both.  From the coconut pastries, mouthwatering melon, white coffee, and mushroom soup, I ate better in those three days than I probably had since leaving the States.  And best of all was the cheese.  I’ve never had such a variety of cheeses before. Over my stay there I ate, cheese spread on bread, fresh mozzarella cheese with tomatoes, fresh farmer’s cheese, Czech “smelly cheese” that apparently the EU is actually trying to ban, braided strings of garlic smoked cheese, and even the traditional Czech dish of fried cheese (like a grilled cheese sandwich but without the bread).  I was in Liz Lemon paradise (watch 30 Rock if you don’t get the reference). 

Radka also loved Czech food and was endlessly frustrated by the fact that you couldn’t get necessary ingredients for many of her traditional dishes in America, like a soft cheese used for baking called Tvaroh and flours of different grain size.  Each summer when she returns to the Czech Republic, Radka actually brings back 50kg of flour with her just to make it through a year.  I got to experience using tvaroh that afternoon for when my made tvaroh dumplings, which we ate with apricot and strawberry causes and homemade caramel.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to go back to eating peanuts and pasta after this.

After a visit from ne of Radka’s friends originally from the States herself, we went out to walk to Darka again, taking a bit of a different and longer route, much to Dark’s dismay by the end.  Our route took us through the major sites of Brno itself, such as the Spilberk castle overlooking the city (illuminated at the time by a soft purple light by the setting sun), the beautiful Petrov Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, the church with a little devil pointing his butt toward another Cathedral as a symbol of victory in completing construction before the other (architects in Brno had quite the sense of humor), the many decorative and ornate buildings lining the streets, the main square that was actually built by Radka’s father (who is one of the most important men of Brno), and finally past what locals call the Penis Clock in the middle of a the square.  It’s a large, black marble clock that really does look a bit how it is named.  At 11am every day, people gather around the clock in hopes of collecting a single marble omitted by it.  In Brno, 11am is a special time because once while defending the city from Swedish invasion, the Swedish general said they would give up if they did not take the city by noon.  Knowing the city gates would not hold another hour, Brno troops simply chimed the noon bells at 11am and the Swedish troops fell for the trick and retreated.  Such instances lead me to believe the world was far better off before technology.  At this point, Darka’s sad eyes practically begged us to let her go home and we ourselves were quite tired from the long day.

Again, we woke up early the next morning for a bike ride, hoping to get most of the riding done in the early hours of the day before the heat made it too unbearable to be outside.  Despite our early start, we were still sweating bullets by the time we finally cycled the 15km up to the Hrad Veveri, an old castle situated on the Svratka River.   Since it was a Monday, the castle itself was closed, but the grounds on the outside were still open, including an incredibly aesthetically cool old greenhouse, covering in moss and ivy, and a lovely walled in garden, now overgrown with weeds but still popping with perennial color.  We took a different route back into Brno, this time much more slow going along a narrow mountain bike path that crossed bridges with large holes and descended down steep, root bound paths that often required us to get off and walk.  By the time we reach home, a total of 30km cycled in just a few hours, I was definitely feeling it in my lower body, aka crotch.  I’m not particularly used to cycling and I always forget how miserable those seats can be.  It would be interesting to see how I felt the next day.

The day only grew hotter and as such, we spent much of the rest of it lounging around the house, doing some more baking, and, for me, catching up on blogging.  I play the perpetual game of catch up with this blog, no matter how hard I try to convince myself I’ll stay on top of it.  My next morning was my last day in Brno, but my bus would not be leaving until 17:30 that night so we still had the greater part of the morning to see some last minute things.  We hopped in the car, and drove outside Brno again to see the Austerlitz Chateau and the battlefield and memorial for the Battle of Austerlitz, the place where Napoleon clashed against Austrian and Russian armies.  His victory there was considered one of the most important and decisive conflicts in the Napoleonic Wars.  It was so nice to be able to get out of the city and see all these cool things that I had never heard of before.  I forgot how much I love having a car, having the freedom to go wherever you want whenever you want.  That car allowed me to go see places in the countryside surrounding Brno that I would never have been able to see otherwise.  When traveling, I am reliant on my feet and public transport and thus I am often limited to staying within cities themselves.  Who knows what kind of amazing gems I am missing simply because I am limited in mobility.

Afterwards, we finally drove home where I could pack up my stuff and off to the bus station we went.  I was sad to be leaving and infinitely glad that I had taken the chance on coming here, even if it meant rearranging my precious schedule.  In just a few days, I felt as though Radka and I had gotten to know each other on a fairly personal level and grown considerably close for former strangers in the process.  That is yet another thing I love about travel: our willingness to open up and expose the very raw personal sides of ourselves to complete and utter strangers.  Travel is a constant exercise in trust and understanding, but it’s easy because travelers are rarely judgmental.  We’re all a bit different, a bit estranged even, and we learn to value those difference in each other.  Out on the road, we are our truest self, because the road cares not for social graces and norms.  It only cares for the true and wild rhythm to which our feet and heart beat in tandem.

I am so deeply grateful to Radka for all she did for me.  I wanted to give her some money in return for everything but she refused.  Being a traveler is definitely a lesson in giving but it is also a lesson in the even harder act of taking.  Accepting help is something I’ve never been that great at and my inner sense of pride always motivates me to try to repay acts of kindness, but sometimes you just can’t especially when many of the people who show you kindness are those you will never see again.  Instead, I take it as a call to p such instances as a call to pay it forward.  That’s what travel is, looking forward not back, and it’s a lesson I continue to learn.  Thankfully, this was probably not the last time I would see Radka and I look forward to meeting this amazing again one day in Montana.